With the highest GDP per capita in South America in 2020, Chile’s growth in the last few decades has been viewed as a model for Latin American development. Adopting a laissez-faire approach, the government shied away from significant spending on welfare, with the few existing programs geared toward middle and upper-class Chileans. However, recent administrations have made combating poverty a central theme of their campaigns, with presidents like Sebastián Piñera and Gabriel Boric both committing to the elimination of extreme poverty. Poverty reduction in Chile and the challenges the country faces serve as an inspiration and a warning for other developing nations.
Chile’s Approach to Poverty Reduction
Chile’s approach to poverty reduction is based upon a series of programs that focus on short-term income support and long-term economic security. During the 1990s, the Aylwin administration invested in hospitals and schools while also increasing the minimum wage. These reforms halved the number of Chileans living in poverty while contributing to the country’s steady growth throughout the decade. However, the highly centralized and inefficient public services system, coupled with strikes from teachers and health workers, meant Chile required a new solution for the new millennium.
With a new presidential administration and the need for change amid stagnating results, the government introduced ‘Chile Solidario’ as the country’s newest front in reducing poverty. Conceived in 2002, the program aimed to help low-income Chileans on an individual level while simplifying the arcane bureaucracy behind the country’s welfare system. Chile Solidario provided those in extreme poverty with cash stimuli and “psycho-social support” from social workers, assisting with immediate needs and future plans. In addition, the program synthesized many smaller financial assistance programs into a cohesive system, aiming to make aid more accessible to low-income citizens.
The program showed some successes with poverty reduction in Chile, albeit with limitations. The clearest evidence supporting Chile Solidario is the rapid decline of the percentage of people living in poverty in the years after the program’s introduction in 2002, from 29% to 8.6% by 2017.
Furthermore, attendance in schools and hospitals rose significantly, suggesting health and educational benefits in the future. A significant drawback of Chile Solidario is that while many in the program leave poverty, the rates of exit from the program are not as high. A study during Chile Solidario’s early years also found that household income per capita among recipients did not significantly increase.
The administration of Piñera further modified Chile Solidario. In 2012, President Piñera replaced Chile Solidario with the Ingreso Ético Familiar (Ethical Family Income). As part of his broader promise to end extreme poverty in Chile, IEF focuses primarily on conditional cash transfers to eligible Chileans, requiring school attendance and regular health checkups.
Unfortunately, the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic and Chile’s strict lockdown has challenged the nearly continual progress of poverty reduction in Chile, with the poverty rate increasing from the 2017 low of 8.6% to 10.8% in 2020. Chile’s new president Boric promised $3.7 billion in aid in April 2022, undertaking to create new jobs while raising the minimum wage.
The ongoing debate over Chile’s draft constitution offers hope in the fight against poverty, promising to end job insecurity and institute a universal basic income. However, it also risks undermining the gradual, albeit successful progress of the last four decades in its radical rejection of the blueprint of the 1980 constitution.
Poverty reduction in Chile stands at a crossroads, able to embrace more direct government involvement in reducing the poverty rate or continue to let economic growth naturally spread to its poorest citizens. President Boric’s government seems to firmly favor the former, but in September, it is up to Chileans to decide whether they agree with his vision for the country.
– Samuel Bowles